It’s taken me a long time to get to writing this, but it’s finally here! Liz and I took a trip to Sweden in July of 2017, were graciously hosted by our friends Rob and Annrika, and we had a blast!
This is the word I’d use to describe our trip in general. I found Sweden to be friendly, safe, similar to “home” in many ways, and easy to get around. Granted, we had our guides for the whole trip, but it wouldn’t have been hard to get around otherwise for someone who spoke little to no Swedish.
Liz and I had practiced on Duolingo in the months before the trip, and I was up to about 200 words of Swedish by the time I arrived, but a) never actually needed it because virtually everyone spoke enough English for me to get by, and b) most times I tried Swedish, the person I spoke to recognized my accent and immediately switched to English. Annrika assures me that’s because everyone is happy to get practice in English, but I suspect it was actually because I was butchering the pronunciation so badly it hurt their ears :).
We left for Sweden in the middle of July and stayed in the “middle” of the country (around Stockholm’s latitude) and south of Sweden, so we saw very little night. It would become twilight late in the evening after a sunset lasting many minutes, and we rarely saw anything darker than what I’d call “dusk”, and that only lasted a few hours before the sun was coming back up again! Everywhere has blackout curtains and we brought sleep masks so we’d actually manage to sleep during all this light. I know it’s quite a different atmosphere during the winter, but in summertime, everyone was out and about (everyone who hadn’t left the country for vacation), jumping in the lakes, and sunning themselves at every opportunity. Liz and I tried to go native to some degree, but it would seem we burn more easily in the sun and freeze faster in the water than our friends.
The people themselves seemed quite nice to us. Certainly very polite and helpful even if they weren’t very engaging with strangers. We had an experience or two that made me feel we were imposing with our continued presence at first, but just a little while later found everyone laughing together. My armchair sociological interpretation after my trip is that Swedes as a group seem very inclined towards “correctness” in as much as possible … following the rules whether they’re social or legal, well known or poorly defined. It’s that drive that both keeps things smoothly humming there but also makes initial social interactions a bit slow to start as both sides are figuring out what’s “correct” in this new framework as well as trying to be (in perhaps an American view) overly polite :D. But I’ll stress that even in situations that our hosts perceived as bordering on rude, I never saw any real fault and had no problem at all. Americans, I think, are perceived as perhaps overly open and friendly, but that also opens some doors to be friendship (or at least easy interaction) with anyone you meet.
We had an absolute blast the whole trip. We spent some time seeing some local sights in Västerås and doing some lake “swimming” there (and lots of eating), as well as a good amount of time in Stockholm visiting historical sites and events. We took a few days at the beach (cold, cold water, but still beautiful warm days) and saw an ancient fortress and an old castle ruin on that part of the trip, and we also spent an afternoon in the southern forests wandering around. What a beautiful country all around!
We had a great visit and we’d love to return any time! So many thanks to Rob and Annrika!
Days 1 and 2 – Flights
We flew out in the evening for an overnight flight to Frankfurt. This was about a ten hour flight. We’d paid a little more to fly Lufthansa as opposed to the cheaper US airlines, and I think it paid off. Not as good as some of the best airlines I’ve been on, but certainly more than acceptable. Decent quality and quantity of food, decent movies to watch, and seats that were only moderately uncomfortable. That’s a huge improvement over experiences on Continental, United, Delta, etc. We slept a little as it was an overnight, and arrived in Frankfurt at 11am local with 7 hours to kill.
Given that I won’t relax until I know the next step of the plan is in place, we tried to head over to the gate for our next flight out, only to find the entire wing of the airport was closed to all but EU passport holders, and the guards blocking the way seemed relatively friendly, but also obviously didn’t speak any English, weren’t interested in trying, and were armed. So instead of bothering them, we ate and napped where we were, with many walking trips around the areas we were allowed access to. Eventually, with 2 hours until our next flight, we found the area opened again and discovered the likely reason … we had to clear customs and they probably only had internal EU customs open until later.
Of course, clearing customs itself was just silly. They asked our final destination, we told them it was Sweden, and they told us to go ahead. That was it. That was all the customs we went through to get into Sweden (or the EU in general). Coming home was orders of magnitude harder.
We finally made our flight, a two hour hop to Sweden, and came out to collect our bags and walk out the airport into a bright, beautiful day at about 7pm. Rob and Annrika picked us up and took us to Västerås. They have a very nice house there with our guest room being a converted attic space. It strongly reminded me of the room my sister and I would sleep in when we’d visit my mom’s parents in Rhode Island … super narrow staircase and all!
Somehow, probably due to the sunlight, Liz and I managed to be awake a while longer and have a nice grilled supper on their back patio. This was definitely the go-to “thing” to do for much of our trip. Relax outside in the nice weather with some drinks and food.
Day 3 – “Warm up” to Sweden
The next day was to be a jaunt to some local spots, as we all figured Liz and I would be toast from our trip. Turned out we were totally fine! After we slept in past noon, that is. I recall waking up at 8am and thinking, “Rob and Annrika sleep in a little later. I’ll catnap until I hear them get up,” and next thing you know it’s very late and they’re wondering what’s up with us.
We had only a few short drives to take this day, and drove past many red painted houses that would be perfectly at home in the midwest or central US. Similarly, the landscape very much reminded me of Wisconsin! The trees, lakes, and even the weather seemed very similar. It’s less of a surprise now why so many Swedish immigrants to the US in the late 1800’s moved to the northern central and midwest areas.
They took us out to Anundshög, which is just a short drive from their home. This is thought to be a viking era burial mound. It’s a mound that’s nearly 30 feet tall and 200 feet wide with various raised stones nearby. Several of the collections of raised stones are believed to be in the shape of ships, and one in particular is a giant runestone with a huge number of carvings on it that was used to mark out (probably) a route for kings to take to be confirmed by local provinces.
We followed that up with a trip to a “local” lake. We drove out onto an island where there’s a beach area set up and had a late afternoon snack. This was another thing we had to get used to in Sweden, or perhaps at least with Rob and Annrika. We ate like hobbits! We woke up late, had breakfast, followed it with a “fika” in mid-morning (a coffee / tea and snack break), then lunch, then another fika, then supper, and we might even have something before bed in the evening. I was in heaven.
But back to the beach: The third largest lake in Sweden, Mälaren, winds its way in patches from further west than we were all the way into Stockholm where it’s separated from the ocean by several locks which keep it a freshwater lake. Here we were introduced not only to the fairly cold water for the first time (most lake temperatures were in the 60’s, though currents could drop that lower), but also changing into and out of your swim suit on the beach. Just wrap a towel around yourself and change underneath it! Liz managed to accomplish this, but I felt too clumsy with this method to even try. Perhaps if we return, I’ll practice this skill (privately) before I go!
Liz and I did get into the lake and slowly made our way out to where our “Swedish fish” had already gone to. Dozens of feet out and it was still only just past waist deep. I suspect this kept the water a bit warmer in this area, but full keeled sailboats were just a few hundred feet away. The lake is dozens of feet deep in most places.
As became the normal, Annrika would try to describe the temperature of the water to us by how much it hurt and in what way. For example, “oh, it only hurts when you’re not moving,” or “it only hurts for a little while.” Liz and I were somewhat baffled not only by this temperature scale, but also why jumping in lakes was so popular if it all hurt! But they were very much right that warming up in the sun after jumping in the lake was a very pleasant thing to do.
Day 4 – Drottningholm and Stockholm
Our first visit to Stockholm (not counting the airport) was a trip to Drottningholm. Liz and I were terrible car passengers (this was true the entire trip). We remained partially tired the whole time from all the fun, and the back seat of a moving car is just the perfect place for a nap. So we tended to collapse into sleep as Rob or Annrika drove us around.
We passed by the Stockholm City Hall. This is where the Nobel Prize is presented to recipients and it’s an absolutely imposingly large building when you’re right up next to it. As we walked along the “lake that emptied into the sea” (how this is not a loch or river I’m still not exactly clear on, but Rob assured me repeatedly that it was a lake), we could see the royal palace and parliament house, along with the rest of the city.
Our first stop, though was Drottningholm. This is an older palace from the 1700’s built upon an even older palace that now is a residence of the current Swedish royal family. We took a tour of the interior which was restored back to the 18th century design and learned the function of the many, many rooms. We strolled around the large gardens and up through the “Chinese Pavilion” portion of the estate.
Afterwards, we made our way back into Stockholm and wandered the streets of old town for a while, an area dating back to the 13th century! The narrow cobblestone streets and tall buildings were impressive enough, but then Annrika led us down to a restaurant buried under the street level. Stained glass windows looked out on dirt. Over the centuries (the story goes), the dirt and rubbish from the town built up and has grown to cover the first floors of the original buildings. We had a good small meal and a perplexing conversation with the waiter who was lamenting the fact that no one in Sweden tips, only to follow up this exchange by being presented with our credit slips to sign that have no place to give a tip.
Day 5 – Rainy tour of Västerås and tacos
Rob and Annrika took us to another of their lakeside beach hangouts before dropping in for a late lunch at a local dockside restaurant. Liz and I ordered mussels thinking that’d be a light meal. They showed up as an entire pot full! I don’t think I’ve ever been made “full” eating just mussels before, but this did it!
We strolled around downtown Västerås for a while, seeing some of the shopping district before wandering into the local gothic cathedral. A giant place with tombs and carvings everywhere that was built in the 13th century. After the rain that had chased us into the church in the first place subsided a little, we walked through Kyrkbacken … the neighborhood around the cathedral … that was full of more winding cobblestones, city walls, and large gates dating from the same period.
Back at home, we decided it was a day for tacos! Rob and Annrika had told us a few times that they made “Swedish tacos” and we never did figure out entirely what might be different about that other than the ingredients they had access to. So Liz and I had brought local seasonings and were going to make the tortillas, pico de gallo, and fixings up from scratch as a fun evening and to see what was different. We ran into just one problem. No lard or shortening! Annrika introduced us to a kind of coconut butter that could be used as a substitute, but she also had to show us how to work it. It started out with the consistency of candle wax, so I was very confused. She literally beat it into submission and before long, we were making tortillas!
The trip to the grocery was also interesting for me. For the most part, it’s exactly what you might expect in any grocery store in the US. A few major differences stood out to me.
First, the herbs we were looking for were actually plants … as in they were planted in little pots of dirt. You would buy the whole plant (dirt, roots, and all), take it home, and cut up what you needed. I suppose this is probably far “fresher” for your herbs, but when needing just a few sprigs of one herb or another, it seemed a bit excessive to me! They had smaller packaged amounts, but the plant was cheaper for what we were looking for!
Second, the isle of cheap candy was kind of amazing. You could just grab a bag and dump all kinds of candies into this bag and pay for the total weight at the end. And it was an entire isle long. There was no shortage of choice. They had to steer us away from getting too many of the more “intense” flavors that we didn’t recognize (salted licorice, for example … saltlakrits if I have the name right).
Third, the payment method. You could scan your groceries as you went so you could just pay at a kiosk and head out when you were done. I wish we’d implement that here, but I suspect people might try to take advantage by hiding things they didn’t scan before they left. The store would do spot checks, but I only saw that happen twice (once to us) and they literally checked a single item in our cart to make sure we paid for it. Very trusting!
Finally, the cheese isle. I wasn’t shocked to see a wall of cheeses, but was surprised when I asked what kinds some of them were and got just a blank answer of, “well, it’s table cheese.” Ah, of course. Table cheese. Several cheeses were simply named for their use, not what they were made of! Didn’t slow us down much, though. I believe we selected some pre-shredded “taco cheese” that looked appropriate and moved on.
We eventually made it home, and made some tacos!
Day 6 – Småland old home (driving day)
Rob took us to visit an old family estate in the south of Sweden where we met some extended family of his who let us come in and take a look around at the place, and then took a nice long hike through gorgeous forests and along a (yet another) lake there. Beautiful.
Most of the day was taken up with the drive to get south, but by the evening, we were in Halmstad, a beach town on the southwest coast. We were staying in a dorm for the local university that wasn’t in use for the summer. Great concept and it gave us a nice place to stay (with wifi) and use as our base to tour around.
Day 7 – Varberg Fortress
We went a little ways north to Varberg to visit this fortress that dated back to the 1300s. It’s a huge installation that was expanded over time and used all the way through the 1800’s and then converted to a prison. Now it’s a museum.
We walked the grounds for much of the day, getting great vantage points and seeing various re-enactments going on around us. It’s also got a museum in the interior, so we spent part of the afternoon learning about local history throughout the ages. One of the major exhibits they had was the Bocksten Man … a 14th century preserved body that was recently (in the 1930’s) found in a local bog. The exhibit detailed all the things they learned because of this find … from the clothing of the period to some customs, and maybe even why he was killed (might have been murdered over politics and then superstitiously staked to the ground so he wouldn’t haunt them later).
We finished off the day with an adult beverage by the water back in Halmstad and a very nice supper at a restaurant Rob and Annrika knew from previous visits.
Day 8 – Beach day
The prior day was a bit windy and chilly, so we had picked the fortress over the beach, but this day was gorgeous. We spent almost the whole of it at the beach. The water was at the “only hurts when you’re moving” temperature, so there were frequent forays into chest-deep ocean water followed by much sunning.
A big difference between the beach there and US beaches was obvious immediately as we arrived. There was barely any shade to be seen (very few umbrellas or anything) and everyone was turned to face the sun, not the water.
We explored the downtown area a bit to see a big party atmosphere and found another good restaurant to eat in before crashing late in the evening again.
Day 9 – Some more beach, some more driving, and Brahehus
Waking up, we knew this was another great beach day. So Rob and Annrika “convinced” us that we should spend the morning at the beach and drive out later than planned. This was a real hardship for us two non-drivers in the group who slept large portions of the way back.
We lunched by the shore, making sure to take a picture of what we had dubbed “Sweden’s national animal” (this clown was everywhere … it’s an advertisement for ice cream) before heading out on the road.
Part way back we watched the sun begin to set around 9:30pm (it continued well towards 10:15) at a ruin named Brahehus. This was a castle built in the 1600s that burned down, but remains in a scenic spot. The wall of windows reminded me of the opening of The Muppet Show, but I don’t think anyone wanted to crawl up to each of them and try to recreate the scene.
Day 10 – Rock quarry lake, hike, and Crayfish party
We went to a local flooded (intentionally) rock quarry for some more lake jumping in the morning and took a nice hike around their neighborhood in the afternoon. I do miss the trees and mosses out there. It’s quiet and beautiful in a lush green way that you don’t see in Colorado.
The major event of this day, though, was the crayfish party … a Swedish tradition I was quite pleased to partake in! It appeared to consist largely of eating crayfish, drinking, some singing, and more drinking. Annrika had managed to find an assortment of Crayfish even though it was a few weeks early for the season and she also managed to teach us just enough of the song “Helan går” to belt it out once or twice and recognize it when we would hear it later in our trip.
Day 11 – Stockholm changing of the guard, palace, armory, and viking dinner
We went back in to Stockholm for our final day and followed the military unit along the streets and into the palace grounds for the changing of the guard.
We then visited the palace where we had another guided tour. It’s yet another grand and opulent monument of the past with dozens of rooms, rooms that serve as the room you wait in before getting to the room, and rooms to guard that room. All elaborately decorated and all with their individual purposes. Next we visited the armory museum where we learned a bit about various military practices and equipment through the ages in Sweden, and also tried on knight’s armor.
We had another nice stroll at lunch, this time along the King’s Garden, and finished with some ice cream.
We ended the day with a “Viking dinner”. We were sat down at long tables after being loudly introduced to the room and had some surprisingly delicious wild game and mead. Liz and I then stayed in Stockholm to get ready for our flight out early the next morning.
Day 12 and 13 – a long “day” of flights
Since we were going west, we managed to leave Sweden at 9am and arrive in Denver at 2:30pm the same day. Of course, that involved about 14 hours of traveling, so we were pretty exhausted by the time we arrived home at nearly 4pm (and thanks to Al for coming to pick us up!).
We got up early (for us and for this trip) at about 6am, breakfasted, and took the free shuttle bus to the airport. There, we bumbled around a little until we found where we were supposed to deposit our bags, and then bumbled a little more finding the right direction to go in the airport. It wasn’t that signs weren’t in English, it’s just that the signs were very unclear and you had to start a little ways down one path to find a sign that told you you’d been going the wrong way. Even so, we made it to our gate with plenty of time.
Our adventure this time was in Munich. We only had 40 minutes to transfer (not my first choice) and I was getting quite nervous because the plane had parked far out on the tarmac for disembarkation. We figured we’d have to bus to the terminal, run through the airport or hop trains to get to the right terminal, and hope we weren’t jumping back to a bus on the tarmac again. Fortunately, we were one set of about 8 people from our plane who had this issue and the Franz Josef Strauss airport was prepared. Liz and I were met by a man with a van (we were the only ones headed to Denver) who drove us at a quick pace to a customs official sitting in a lone booth by himself in the main terminal. We got the same level of scrutiny as on the way in (I think he made sure our pictures matched and that we had tickets), and then we drove to a door that led to the final line to the gates. There we presented our tickets again and were quickly passed through without waiting in the line, thanked our driver, and in no time were standing in front of our jetway. We were not even the last to board!
After some light napping, arriving in Denver, and being driven home, we were fully exhausted. It was about 2am to our body clocks and I think we went to bed around the same time Ada did that night.